Jul 052017

The attached paper is a re-publication of the honors thesis I wrote in 1996 as a senior at the University of California at Berkeley.  As the title indicates, it was designed to study Internet adoption among my fellow students.

As an undergraduate in the early 1990s found myself in school at an auspicious time: the dawning of the Internet age.  The Internet itself pre-dated my enrollment, and even back in 1992 was available for students to use, but (at least for students at UC Berkeley) only if you knew where to look for it.  Or even to look for it.

As it turns out, I did.  As a senior in high school the year before I had friends who had already gone off to college come home at the semester breaks and tell me all about this completely free system they could use to send messages to each other.  It sounded too good to be true, but once I got to college I decided to get myself one of those email accounts I’d heard so much about.  It took some searching but I eventually found the Open Computing Facility (OCF), a student-run organization in the basement of Evans Hall where one could sign up an account on an Internet-connected UNIX server cluster.  I then also found a phone number where I could point my 2400 baud modem to dial into the campus network (after first remembering to enter the code prefix to turn off the call waiting and telling my dorm roommates that I would be tying up the phoneline) and then Telnet into my account.

My Internet experience was initially limited to the software I could run through my UNIX shell account, such as Talk for chats and Mail for email, but happily soon we got access to PINE as an easier-to-use mail client (a client I continued to use for more than ten years until my Gmail account and personal domain eventually mooted the need to maintain my Berkeley accounts).

Eventually the school rolled out a new program called “Home IP,” which allowed us to make SLIP/PPP connections over the modem, which in turn let us use other Internet client software running directly on our own computers, including the first graphical web browsers and desktop-based mail clients.  The school also began to offer all students (and faculty) email accounts on a campus-wide basis, obviating the need for students (and faculty) to independently find and get accounts on student or department-run servers.  The full IT support that the university community now takes for granted has its roots in these mid-1990s offerings.

My studies also got me a front row seat to see how the Internet was being introduced to the world outside of the Academy.  As a mass communications major I scavenged every single IT-related course I could find on campus, courses that during my first years at school originally focused on subjects like the French government’s subsidization of MINITEL and the impact of Japanese chip dumping on the American computer industry but eventually turned to the Internet itself.  It was through one graduate seminar in particular that I had the opportunity to surf the web for the very first time (I pulled up a satellite weather image with colorful radar highlighting and was astounded).  I also learned how to code web pages, which turned out to be useful for finding a job as a web developer once I graduated – a career that had not existed at the time I was a freshman.

Meanwhile I had also double-majored in sociology, and it is for that major that I wrote this thesis.  Inspired by my mass communications coursework, I decided to see how university students were adopting this brand new thing called the Internet.  While today it may seem unimaginable, in the mid-1990s the Internet was not at all the ubiquitous thing it is today.  Where today the Internet tends to blend into people’s lives almost seamlessly, back then it required an affirmative choice to make use of it (as well as clumsier tools and slower access options).  Obviously enough people ultimately came to use the Internet such that it eventually became what it is now: an essential utility that modern life cannot easily be maintained without.  But this evolution did not happen automatically or overnight.

What this paper captures is a snapshot from the initial stages of mass Internet adoption, at least within this one community, which, by virtue of being a university community, was able to have subsidized access readily available.  As the paper’s methodology section discusses further, I managed to find a large class of students pulled from all parts of the campus (most classes tended to only enroll people from certain colleges or departments, but to fulfill the campus-wide “American Cultures” pre-requisite there were several large classes populated with students from hard sciences, social sciences, humanities, and everything in between).  I then asked these students a number of questions about if and how they used the Internet, and whether they planned to use it once the university no longer gave them their access.  (Of note: not everyone said yes.)

The paper necessarily suffers from being the work product of a harried 21-year-old pushing to graduate.  I seem to have given it some sort of edit in 1998, and in preparing it for re-publication now I’ve given it a bit more polish where certain sentences were either unclear or otherwise cringeworthy.  I’ve opted to leave most of it the way I wrote it originally however, at least in terms of substantive assertions, because what I got wrong back then (such as the fixation on certain terminology or technology), as well as what I got right, is itself almost as meaningful as any of the data collected.  No one could have imagined in 1996 the Internet becoming what it has 20+ years later, but as we consider what the Internet might come to look like in the next 20 years it is helpful to see how the future looked to us then as we look to it now.

The preceding was adapted from the introductory note I wrote in republishing the thesis now.

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